Strangers in a Hostile Land
Throughout the first epistle of Peter, the apostle is addressing a group of believers who are manifestly different from the citizens of the lands in which they find themselves compelled to live, and who are therefore misunderstood, maligned, and persecuted. Although at one time these believers were at home in their places of earthly residence, they have now been vastly transformed by the great power of the gospel. They were formerly not a people of God, but have now become a people (2:10). They had been full of malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander, but were now constrained as newborn infants to desire something altogether different, that is, the true milk of the Word of God (2:1). In times past they had carried out the will of the Gentiles, giving themselves over to debauchery, sensuality, drunkenness, idolatry, etc., but that time has all passed, and now their former compatriots consider them strange and alien, and mock and slander them, because they no longer do those wicked things (4:-3-4; 1:14). Because of this great change, they who had once been citizens of this world, and loved by their own, and partners with them in this world's lusts, are now exiles and sojourners, whether in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, or any other place they may live (1:1-3). Hence, Peter exhorts them to live in accordance with their new character as temporary pilgrims in this world, and not according to their former futile ways (1:17-18).
The reason for this command, that those believers who had become strange to the world, and who were persecuted and afflicted, ought to behave in a manner worthy of their new citizenship, is twofold: first, because they had received so many gifts, great and eternal and wonderful beyond measure, it was only fitting that they should live with those precious realities always in their mind, and rejoice in their great inheritance, and consider their temporary trials fleeting and insignificant by comparison. Though not now seeing Christ, yet they love him and rejoice with unspeakable joy, and rest their souls in the blessed end which has been secured for them, namely, the eternal salvation of their souls (1:3-9). If even Christ suffered in this world, willingly and without reviling in kind or returning evil for evil, and has now entered his glory, so we who have been bought by Christ's blood ought to arm ourselves with the same mind (4:1), and follow in his footsteps, (2:21-25), suffering joyfully for righteousness' sake and the gospel's sake, and remembering the eternal reward laid up for all who overcome.
But in the second place, it is most fitting that these saints and sojourners should live lives utterly holy and worthy of the gospel, ultimately because the purpose of their redemption, in large part, is to display the glory and worth of the Father in this evil generation. If the rich inheritance alone were the goal, God might well have whisked them away immediately, and brought them to their reward; but he left them upon this world in which they no longer have a place, so that they might show forth the virtues of him who had called them (2:9). It is ultimately because the Father himself is holy that it is incumbent upon his people as well to be holy in their conduct and lifestyle (1:14-15).
For these persecuted believers, it was very easy to see the incongruence of living as though they were at home in this world: the world despised and afflicted them beyond measure, and this affliction opened their eyes to the wicked and disgusting realities suffused throughout its evil system. The same enemies who stole their property, abused their good names, and spilled their blood, lived according to those former fleshly passions that they had all shared; and in this circumstance, they were able to see how bloodthirsty and cruel those old, fleshly passions really were, and their instinct was to turn away in revulsion. They had suffered in the flesh and had therefore ceased from sin (4:1), their faith had been tried as if with fire, and had thereby been made more precious than gold (1:6-7).
So for these elect strangers, although the way was very difficult, and they were tempted to turn back because the persecution was severe, yet it was at least easy to see the stark and total contrast between the Church and the world, the strange heirs of eternity and the familiar citizens of this present, evil system. But how do those earnest exhortations of the apostle, that we should strive against sin, live in a manner utterly distinct from the Gentiles, and setting all our hopes on eternal glory, walk as strangers and pilgrims through this world in which we live but do not belong â€“ how do these apply to us when we are not currently victims of great persecution for our faith, when the world is filled with casual, lackadaisical, and hypocritical professors of Christ, because it is easy and comfortable to claim his Name? Is the warfare in times of peace, corruption, and deception as grim and sober as it is when the enemy rages with external violence against all those who merely name the Name of the Savior? When someone may at any moment have his blood spilled because he has said, â€œI am Christ's,â€ then he feels the strangeness of the land in which he dwells as a sojourner; but when the whole world around says, â€œI am Christ's,â€ and yet they still live as the devil, then will the temptation not be much stronger to live according to the old, former, lusts, that is, to live as though one were at home in this world, even when claiming to be citizens of the next? After all, do not very many others all around you do the same thing? The persecuted believers today in China, Central Asia, Northern Africa, and many other places, will find an immediate and instinctive application of this blessed epistle; but how may we apply it who by God's grace are supplied with much abundance in this present world, and have to endure little overt material persecution, whether of chains and imprisonment, or the plundering of goods, or beatings and martyrdom?
Today, I would take our text, 1 Peter 2:11, and apply it specifically to all of us who claim to be God's true people in this milieu of relative ease and comfort, by observing three universal truths which it makes manifest:
I.There are two utterly different and absolutely contrary realms in this age, comprising all of humanity; and to be a citizen of the one is to be a stranger and enemy of the other.
II.In either of these realms, there are certain characteristics and pursuits that are natural to itself and utterly foreign to its counterpart.
III.There is currently an enmity and warfare between these two realms which is mortal, inescapable, and eternal in its outcome.
In demonstrating these points, I hope by the Spirit to prove beyond cavil that in times of peace our warfare is as momentous, our combat as mortal, and our enemy as deadly, as they are in times of fiercest persecution and bloodshed; and then to impress upon you, in accordance with that reality, the urgency and eternal importance of fleeing from the eternal-death-bearing lusts and devices of this present world.
I. There are two utterly different and absolutely contrary realms in this age, comprising all of humanity; and to be a citizen of the one is to be a stranger and enemy of the other.
When Peter gave his admonition to the beloved, â€œI beseech you as strangers and sojourners,â€ he was making it clear, first, that they were not citizens of this world in which they lived, but rather aliens and strangers within it; and second, that although they were not citizens here, they did in fact have a true home, they were just not in full enjoyment of it yet. They were â€œstrangers,â€ that is, aliens in their current places of residency; but they were also â€œpilgrims,â€ or â€œsojourners,â€ that is, people passing through foreign territory with a purpose and destination in mind â€“ they were not just out-of-place transients, ever wandering about with no thought of home in their minds, but intentional travelers pressing on through perilous regions, knowing that, on the other side, their prized destination awaited them.
In this world and time, the realm of the saints is foreign and distant
In this characteristic, they were one and the same with all the saints who preceded them. When Seth's godly line was upon the earth before the flood, they were not citizens of the great cities built by Cain and his offspring, but just the few, poor aliens who called upon the Name of the Lord, and were soon almost swallowed up by evil and corrupt men (Gen. 4-6). Then, when God called Abraham, and promised to make him into a great nation, he made him wander as a pilgrim and stranger in the promised land all the days of his life. So Abraham himself, even after he had entered the promised land, testified, â€œI am a sojourner and foreigner among youâ€ Gen. 23:4, ESV). Although he had entered Canaan, he still looked ahead to another city, another heavenly land, in which he should finally find the home for which he was longing; and thus the author of the letter to the Hebrews says of him, â€œBy faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is Godâ€ (Heb. 11:9-10, ESV). In fact, speaking of all the patriarchs, the same writer says, â€œThese all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a cityâ€ (Heb. 11:13-16, ESV).
After Abraham's seed had come into full possession of the promised land, and God by the hand of his servant David had extended its borders according to all his promises to Abraham, it would seem that they could consider themselves citizens and permanent residents, and no longer strangers and pilgrims at all; and yet, at the end of his life, King David testified that they were still not in their true, promised home, for when he had prepared for the Temple to be built he proclaimed, â€œwe are strangers before you and sojourners, as all our fathers were. Our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no abidingâ€ (1 Chron. 29:15). Even in Jerusalem, where the Temple would soon stand, they were still far away from their true home, and still passing through this world as pilgrims.
So then, when God had fulfilled his promise to Abraham in type, and gave to his seed the promised land of physical Canaan, they were still looking forward to the true substance of the promise; but even after that, when the promised Christ had come down to win the substance of the promise for his people, and gain free access for them to the Father, having torn down the veil of the Temple and sent his Spirit to dwell in their hearts by faith, Peter here makes it clear that in spite of everything, they are still strangers and pilgrims, as all their fathers were before them.
This, then, is the mystery of this present age: the saints are full citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20), they are children of the Jerusalem which is above (Gal. 4:26), their life, not yet manifestly but in a mysterious and hidden way, is with Christ in God (Col. 3:3), and they come mystically to their heavenly home every week, to worship God in spiritual places with all the spirits of the just (Heb. 12:22-24); but for all this, they are still not home. They are true possessors of realities which they do not yet see. God has indeed â€œdelivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son,â€ (Col 1:13, ESV); and yet we are transferred there only in principle now, and not yet able to enjoy the sights and realities of which we have already been made heirs.
In the coming age, the realm of the saints will be visible upon this earth, and they will be no longer aliens, but citizens, no longer wanderers, but at home; and they who are at home now will then be distant and alienated
Although today, the saints do not possess this world, but are aliens and wanderers, yet the promise to them still remains, that they shall certainly inherit the whole earth (Mat. 5:5; Rom. 4:13). One day, this evil world will be destroyed with a fervent heat (2 Pet. 3:10), and God will recreate the world, and fashion a new heavens and new earth, in which righteousness dwells (2 Pet. 3:13; Isa. 25). Then, the saints will finally be at home; but what will become of those who now possess the earth? They will be cast into outer darkness (Mat. 25:30), and never allowed to darken the gates of the New Jerusalem (Rev. 22:15), of which we are now citizens and will then be residents; which is now from above and heavenly, but will then come down from heaven and fill the earth (Rev. 21:1-3). There will be an utter and final reversal of roles: they who are now last will be first, they who are despised and homeless will shine in their glory and rest in their eternal home (Mat. 19:29-30).
It is not possible, then, to be at home both in this world and the next as well. Either you will have your portion here, or you will have it hereafter. Either you will be afflicted now for a time, or you will be tormented in the next age for all eternity, time without end. Either you will be strangers today or aliens from heaven tomorrow. You are in one or the other of these realms, and your outward position, whatever it is, will be precisely reversed in the eschaton.
II. In each of these realms, there are certain characteristics and pursuits that are natural to itself and utterly foreign to its counterpart
After Peter declares that there are two different realms comprising the homes of all mankind, and that we who have Christ are strangers here, he goes on to make the admonition that we conduct ourselves in a manner befitting our citizenship, by abstaining from fleshly lusts. It is at once manifest, from our previous description, that the realm of the ungodly thrives and is full of attractions and enticements in the here and now, whereas the realm of the believer is far off now, and holds forth an invisible future promise. The realm of this world is physical, bodily, fleshy; and the realm of the believer is now only spiritual, not yet visible or material or physical at all. Therefore, any activity now following after the lusts of the flesh and the eyes, or the things of the present age, is utterly alien to the heavenly realm, even as it is natural to this present evil world.
The characteristics and pursuits of the present realm are physical, visible, and temporal; and the characteristics and pursuits of the realm of the saints are spiritual, invisible, and eternal.
When Peter says that the lusts of the flesh, which is a material, visible part of us, war against the soul, which is an immaterial, eternal part of us, he is making the nature of the distinction between these two realms very plain. One mindset is given over to the visible world of the here and now, in which our fleshy bodies live, and to the visible, physical things to which those fleshy bodies are drawn; but this preoccupation with the here and now is at enmity with the unseen and eternal soul. It may therefore stand to reason that those who give their lives to earthly good and prosperity now will destroy their eternal souls, and those who give up their earthly lives and goods and possessions now, for the gospel's sake, will find their souls and live forever. So Christ said, â€œIf anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?â€ (Mat. 16:24-26, ESV). Peter and the other apostles left their homes and families to follow their poor, despised, homeless Savior, and he promised them eternal rewards (Mat. 19:27-30); but the rich young ruler, on the other hand, was more interested in his material goods, and so was willing to damn his soul forever, for the sake of a few piddling and temporal riches (Mat. 19:16-22).
This is ever the way of the world, with its fleshly lusts. The natural man looks upon his fruitful crops and says, â€œNow I will eat and drink and be merry for many years,â€ but God says to him, â€œYou fool, tonight your soul will be required of you, and then what good will your overflowing barns do you?â€ (Luke 12:16-21). What was natural to him, in the present age, was utter folly in the age to come, which he could not yet see. The wisdom of the world says, â€œLet us eat, and drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we dieâ€ (1 Cor. 15:32); their portion is in this life, and so they give themselves over to the lusts of this life. This visible, physical, temporal world is a natural man's concern, and it seems right to him to follow it as if it were all there is, but the end of that natural wisdom is the way of death (see Prov. 14:12). But the saint is never content with physical comforts, for he does not properly belong to the realm of the physical, and he can never be satisfied with gratifying his fleshly lusts. He can only be satisfied by looking ahead to the things which are unseen, and for which he ardently longs to be made visible for him, namely, the eternal glory of Christ, whom he has not yet seen but already loves with joy unspeakable and full of glory. He always keeps the invisible Christ before him, and in light of this unseen Savior, all the treasures of the world seem to be dung heaps in comparison with the eternal weight of glory. Thus, while our outward man decays and perishes, our inward, eternal man is renewed day by day, â€œFor this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternalâ€ (2 Cor. 4:17-18, ESV).
King David has summed up this truth for us at the end of the seventeenth psalm, where he says, â€œArise, O LORD! Confront him, subdue him! Deliver my soul from the wicked by your sword, from men by your hand, O LORD, from men of the world whose portion is in this life. You fill their womb with treasure; they are satisfied with children, and they leave their abundance to their infants. As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likenessâ€ (Psalm 17:13-15, ESV). In the passage, we see that David's own portion is future, it will happen when he awakes from the sleep of death; it is invisible, now, but will then be seen; and it is the spiritual reward of seeing and dwelling with Christ. But the reward of the wicked is in this life, it is material and temporal, and therefore they hate him and conspire against his soul.
One way to discern which realm you belong in, is to reflect upon which characteristics and pursuits you are most given to.
This last point leads us to a very sober truth, that the antagonism and warfare between these two mutually opposed realms is mortal, and bears eternal consequences. The lusts of the flesh, the mindset that finds ultimate joy in the here and now while ignoring the things unseen and eternal, wars against the soul, and would put it to eternal death; and in a moment we will look at that truth a little more closely.
But for now, it would be appropriate to pause and consider which of these two realms you are truly a citizen of. The answer you give will have eternal and infinite consequences for good or evil. If you are in the realm of the saints, you may hopefully and joyfully endure through any trial, knowing that the outcome will be the eternal salvation of your souls, and reward beyond imagination; but if you should chance to be in the realm of the ungodly, your eternal terror and doom will be unspeakably severe.
How then may you assure yourselves that you belong with the saints, and not with the children of this age? One great test is to consider in your heart whether your desires, affections, and pursuits are customarily for things most fittingly applicable to this age or to the next. What is it that consumes your life and drinks up all your time and energies? Is it something temporal, as money, leisure and relaxation, the fleeting applause of men, or the immoral and ephemeral pleasures of drunkenness and debauchery? Is it malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander? Those latter things often characterize interactions in the workplace, among children of this age: because their desires are for the here and now, they want more money, worldly comfort, and prestige; and when they cannot have it, they envy others who do; and because they envy them, they are malicious toward them and slander them; but since they do not want to be despised, they do so only behind their backs and to their face use deceit and hypocrisy; all these things may be heard and observed in the workplace, all these things we all used to run about in and give ourselves over to â€“ but do these things characterize us now? Do we still savor as a tender steak any juicy piece of gossip about an unpopular co-worker who is lazy or rude, and join in when all around us are speaking maliciously of him? That is not the product of the heart fixed upon the eternal, invisible, spiritual realities of the coming age, but of the heart that cares for reputation and prestige in this current, dog-eat-dog world of petty and fleeting rivalries.
But it might not even be the outward, fleshly lusts of drunkenness and debauchery, gossip and slander, pride and envy; it may be things of this present age that are outwardly good and acceptable, but which have become ultimate and all-consuming desires. David says of the wicked that their portion is in this life, and they leave all their treasures to their children. Consider yourself well; is your portion in this life? Do you labor and fret yourself most fundamentally over temporal, physical things, whether they be money and material goods, leisure, vacations and retirement, professional success and prestige, or any other such thing? Do you worry yourself over what you are to eat and drink or wear? The Gentiles worry about all these things, for it is natural to their realm; but if your realm is the Kingdom of God, ought you not to concern yourself with that Kingdom, which is not yet visible, and trust that God will add all those other, physical needs to you (Mat. 6:31-33)?
In the present culture, one characteristic by which the children of this age may be discerned, whether or not they claim to be Christ's, is an over-emphasis on bodily health and an awkwardness or reluctance to speak about death and eternity. Nothing in our culture is as severely despised or censured as unhealthy practices such as smoking, overeating, lack of exercise, or a diet full of trans fats and other harmful food. Now, as far as those things go, there is nothing wrong, and even a great deal right, about following wise counsel in matters of health. A blatant disregard for any such consideration may show an addiction to immoderation in food, a dangerous lack of self-control, in sum, it may be a strong indication of a heart that is rooted in the temporal pleasures of the here and now. But the opposite extreme springs from the same bitter root. There are many people today who are addicted to pursuing health and longevity, they cling to bodily upkeep as a religion, they fear nothing so much as cancer, heart disease, signs of aging in the skin or bones or muscle, they are terrified of having their lives cut short by obesity or high blood pressure. They urge and exhort everyone else to be the same as they, and even when others are ninety years old and failing, they counsel them to exercise and modify their diet so as to ensure that every remaining moment will be as healthy as possible. They cling to this life desperately and in their hearts dread the thought of leaving it behind. Then, when a family member or loved one does age and die, as it is inevitable that all of us will, they draw upon their raw and unformed â€œfaithâ€ as a temporary anesthetic, and make the comment â€œWell, at least he's in a better place nowâ€ â€“ but then, they immediately try to forget that nebulous â€œbetter place,â€ so that they can enjoy this place of here and now that they have invested all their souls into, this place that is their portion, this place that they so long to be a part of that they go to great lengths to keep their bodies healthy forever.
This is very common in our culture, and it is just the same heart of belonging to this present world that motivates the drunkard and the glutton and the sluggard to find their joy in the passing delights of this age. We must not be as the drunkard or the glutton, because our hearts ought not to be tied to immoderate food or drink; but neither must we be as the insecure addicts to good health, because our hearts are not tied to this age at all. We ought to use these failing, mortal bodies as good stewards of what God has loaned to us, and not give ourselves to gluttony or laziness; but we must likewise realize that bodily exercise profits little, whereas godliness is profitable forever (1 Tim. 4:8). It is not good for the health of the body to be shipwrecked and beaten with rods, and to suffer cold and hunger and privation and torture and many sleepless nights (see 2 Cor. 11:23-29); it may be very detrimental to the health of the body to go to a place where Christians could be tortured or beheaded; but when the gospel is our treasure, when, that is, we are strangers here and citizens there, such considerations should not move us. If they do, are we really strangers and sojourners in this present, evil realm?
Another discerning question we may put to ourselves is this, What is it that we most desire for our children? Even if they are scared to think about it much, those who are at home in this age know that they will not be here forever, and all the things they labored for they must soon leave. Therefore, they gather up things to give to their children, and long for their own desires to be carried forth in them. They must leave the world of the here and now, of which they are citizens; but at least that world they love will still be here when they are gone, and at least their children will be able to enjoy it. And so they desire for their children to be successful in this age, or rich, or famous, or prestigious in some way. Look into your own heart and ask yourself a question: would I rather see my child as a doorkeeper in the House of God (Psalm 84:10), as a janitor or waitress in the Kingdom, who does his or her work for the glory of Christ, but always struggles to make ends meet; or as a successful, well-loved, and prestigious doctor or professor or politician or lawyer, who is frankly so busy with his profession that, although he's never renounced Christ, he honestly doesn't have a whole lot of time and energy for him? He still goes to church when it's convenient, but when the sun is shining and the waters are clear, he'll be out fishing on his new boat instead â€“ after all he's worked hard that week and he's earned it. What if your child labors in obscurity, is jostled out of any professional success he could have had because of his high ethics and morals, and finally, he gives away all that he still has, so that he can go to a dangerous place in Central Asia, where he might lose his very life? What if he drags away his children and your grandchildren with him, and you know that you may never see them alive again? You know how much he was capable of, you know his intelligence and talents, and he's wasting it all on something that can't even be seen or touched â€“ when you think about that, does your heart leap for joy that your child, despised and afflicted in this world, could be doing something great for the Kingdom which is not now seen? If you can rejoice with him in this, then you may be sure your heart is not in this world, but the world to come.
What are some other pursuits characteristic of this present, visible world, upon which many have spent all their energies and desires? Professional sports have been just such a pursuit for many, or the success a certain political party, for others, or even the welfare and prominence of America in general, or else the entertainment world with its celebrities and icons, or perhaps a high education. Not all of these things will be a temptation to everyone, but some of them will be particularly attractive to you, and you must give yourself to fighting against being consumed by these worldly endeavors. Here are some questions you may ask yourself, to see if you are really a child of this age or the next: â€œIf my favorite sports team made a once-in-a-lifetime stop to play a championship game in Minot next Sunday morning, would I be willing to forsake the assembly of the beloved to watch that game?â€. Now, if in a moment of weakness you made such a decision, that is one thing â€“ we all sin in word and deed, and will not find the perfect sanctification for which we long until the Kingdom comes. But if in your heart you know that, if someone ever really asked you that question, then without pause or struggle, any time of the day or night, you would at once choose the sports game, then you are in a dangerous place, and your inmost heart is betraying to you a very sobering and frightful reality.
Here is another: â€œDo I get more excited, does my heart swell up with greater hope and joy, when my political candidate gets into office than when I gather with the saints to remember the resurrection of Christ every Sunday? On the Fourth of July, do I sing the national anthem with more gusto and inward feeling than I customarily sing the psalms and hymns and spiritual songs of our worship service?â€. We should pray for our national leaders, most particularly that by virtue of their legislated policies we might pursue a godly life in unruffled peace (1 Tim. 2:1-2), and we ought to be very thankful for the freedoms that God has provided for us in this time and place to do so, to remember with gratitude the countless men and women who gave their lives struggling for them, and to use those freedoms to our advantage as we have opportunity â€“ but is the success of this nation, which is certainly temporal, and will soon collapse like every other nation of man before the immoveable Rock of the growing Kingdom of God, more important to you than the spread of the gospel to every nation under heaven? If your heart is wrapped up in your earthly country more than your heavenly are you not a child of this age? When a very early Christian (quite possibly Polycarp) was explaining to a curious unbeliever what the Christians were like, he observed that they â€œdwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers.... Christians dwell as sojourners in corruptible [bodies], looking for an incorruptible dwelling in the heavens...". Does that perspective describe you, or are you so â€œproud to be an American,â€ that you cannot look upon any foreign land as being no different from the land of your birth, because whether here or there, your true country is above?
Here is another question for you parents who homeschool: Is the goal of your education that your children might grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, or do you want them most of all to excel in the liberal arts or sciences, or in musical knowledge and ability, or any other such thing? Are you driven to seeing them perform in the top percentages of all the standardized tests, or to get them accepted into the most prestigious universities, so that others might see how learned and acute an educator and a parent you are? Again, there is nothing wrong with the pursuit of knowledge, it may be valuable to teach your children Latin and Greek and acquaint them with the classics; but is that the end and goal of your education, or is it just one more element subservient to the great goal of raising up Christians who are able to take the gospel accurately and intelligently to others, who may pursue whatever interests they have as Christians first and fundamentally, who prize no knowledge above that which the Holy Spirit illumines through the sixty-six precious and infallible books that proclaim Christ crucified?
Here is a question for young, single adults, who may have a burning desire for love and marriage: there is nothing wrong with pursuing marriage, it is a good and honorable gift of God, and the corresponding gift of celibacy is not given to everyone â€“ but ask yourself this: if you found the man or woman that you had always imagined in your heart as the one to whom you could give yourself forever, if he or she were everything you had always desired, and yet the only problem was that he was an unbeliever, would you rather turn away from him and follow Christ instead? If you would turn away from Christ to follow any lover, if you would not rather leave all family and friends and lovers, should it be required of you, to follow the Savior, then you are not a child of his Kingdom. Another, similar question is this: are your closest friends true Christians, who may be despised and unpopular, or do you love to follow the popular crowd, and rub elbows with the children of this world who shine with charisma and wit and flashy beauty, but are full of coarse and cruel speech and actions? Do you love those whom Christ loved, or those whom the world fawns after?
We are quickly running out of time, and a thousand tests could be devised, but you will have to devise them and apply them to your own heart, the Holy Spirit assisting you, when you think about your life and all the things which are important to you. But before I press on, I would just note again that it is good to enjoy the physical things that God has created to be received with thanksgiving; it is good and honorable to labor diligently and energetically as a Christian doctor or lawyer or any other honest profession to which God has called you; it is good to work for noble causes even in the temporal affairs of this world; but is your heart set upon and desperately longing for professional success and accomplishment and the fine things of this life, no matter how good and valuable they are? Is your greatest joy mending the bones of a sinner (an excellent thing) or representing the despised and downtrodden in our convoluted legal system (another excellent thing)? If this is your greatest and all-pervasive joy, and it is not rather your greatest joy to look upon the unseen Savior with the eyes of faith, and point others to him as well, then do you really belong in the heavenly Jerusalem?
One last test, all-inclusive test we will employ is this: if the choice came before you that you could either have all the riches and power and prestige of Egypt, and whatever kind of temporal delight that you are particularly drawn to, or else harsh affliction with the people of God, which would you choose? Would you justify your decision to stay by the side of Pharaoh, would you say, â€œMaybe if I am patient, he will someday die; then I will enter into his office, and I will be able to help them from the throneâ€ â€“ or would you rather rejoice to leave all those treasures behind and suffer affliction with the people of Christ? If the latter, it can only be because you have looked at the reward, and seen him who is invisible (Heb. 11:24-27), and you have rejoiced to call his coming world your home, even though you are a stranger and wanderer down here.
III. There is currently an enmity and warfare between these two realms which is mortal, inescapable, and eternal in its outcome.
Last of all, we must mention that these two, contrary realms are at war with each other, and that this war is mortal and eternal in its consequences. We may not avoid enlisting in this war, every person who ever lived has struggled and fought on one side or the other. And if we enlist on the side of him who is invisible, we are sure to know enemies which are visible and powerful and currently possessing much authority in this world.
Warfare is inevitable
The warfare is indeed inevitable, and the enemies will be many; but the most deadly enemy of all will not be the evil governments of this world, the cruel men who hate and despise Jesus, or even Satan, the Tempter â€“ they will be our own fleshly lusts, and the sins against which we fight and struggle. This is perhaps the greatest litmus test of all: if we do not struggle against sin, if there is not a war in our hearts and souls, then it can only be because we have no enemies here; and if that is so, then we belong here, it is our home. This means that heaven is not our home, and outer darkness is our only eternal portion.
We are often tempted to think of this the wrong way. We think, â€œIf I struggle so much, if I see so many weaknesses and failures, can I really be a true child of God?â€. Yes, the greatness of our sin may work in us much sorrow and despair and it may even give us cause for prayerfully and tearfully examining ourselves, whether we be in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5); but a far, far more dangerous sign is if we don't struggle much at all, if we think we are actually doing all right. Our outward lives are clean, we're not given to the sins that many around us are given to, so we feel safe and sound. If that is our case, we ought to beware lest we fall utterly and irremediably (1 Cor. 10:12)!
It is a general principle that all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution and affliction from others (2 Tim. 3:12; Acts 14:22) â€“ but how that looks may be very different from case to case, and sometimes that persecution may never even come against you individually, but you may feel it rather as a commiserating member of the body when others are persecuted and you grieve with them. But if you never experience sharp and painfully personal warfare against the sin of your own heart, if you never feel afflicted by indwelling corruption, then be very afraid. If you do not belong to the realm of present, fleshly lusts, then fleshly lusts will doubtless war against you. It is not possible that they shouldn't (see Gal. 5:17); so if they don't, then you are really not a stranger here after all, you are really a stranger to heaven.
If the fleshly lusts win, then the soul will die forever
This warfare is not just inescapable, it is also mortal. If the fleshly lusts win, the soul will die for all eternity. If you have your good things in this present life, if you have â€œyour best life now,â€ then you will be tormented forever with unquenchable flames, and the Lazarus who was so afflicted and despised below will dwell in the delights of a new and coming age, where righteousness dwells and the Savior wipes away every tear (see Luke 16:19-31). If you are at home in this world, if you are pursuing your good things now, if your whole life is consumed with earthly pleasures, whether good or bad, oh, how I tremble for you! The torment of eternity, the wrath of the God whom you despised, is so far beyond description that I shudder to think of it and can find no words to express myself. Will you not awake to the terror of your situation, O wretched sinner, and flee by any means necessary from the city of destruction? Will you not stop your ears and close your eyes to the looks and pleas of your family and friends, and give up everything to follow Christ? If you could only see how fleeting this life is! If you could only see the confusion and terror on the faces of the aged and dying who loved this world, as day after day the horror of a certain and inescapable death confronts them. But their terror now is as nothing to what it will become when that mysterious veil is once and for all torn away from before them, and they step into a strange and eternal world where they have no portion but brimstone and fire.
If the flesh dies with its lusts, then the soul will live forever
But if the flesh dies, if you have crucified it with its lusts (Gal. 5:24), if you wage daily warfare against it, then you will live forever and be satisfied with unspeakable delights. Think for a moment of the blessed and unutterably lovely face of the Savior, think of his manifold and precious delights, how vast and unmeasured is his sweetness and love and grace. What heaven is there like the heaven of the sight of his face? What is there that can satisfy for all eternity but awaking with his likeness, and rejoicing in his presence? Are you weary and struggling, have the cares of this world become too much, is that awful, pressing weight of sin too great for you? Then come again to this Savior, he will not cast you away. Plead with him for another glimpse, plead with him for strength for another day. Will he not give it, this most gracious and compassionate of all men? Will he not lead you when you will be led, and drive you when you are stubborn, and carry you in his arms when you are weak, and then, in a few, short, tear-stained days, will he not bring you in and welcome you to glory? The affliction is so light and temporary, and the reward is eternal and vast beyond measure. Do not grow weary in well doing, pick up again your arms, O tired soldier, and fight against your lusts which fight against you! There is no Goliath that can prevail, when God guides your hand.
Peter began his admonition with this phrase, â€œBeloved, I urge youâ€. Although it is often considered loving to affirm a person in his sin, to say flippantly to him, â€œYou're a good person, you have nothing to fear, you'll certainly be in a better place when you go!â€, yet, when the inevitable and eternal consequences of this great struggle between the sinful flesh and the souls of men is understood, then it is the better part of love to beg and plead and beseech and admonish, and to use any argument necessary to wake people up to the seriousness of this fleeting life and passing age. It is easy to say, â€œpeace, peace!â€ when there is no peace (Jer. 6:14); and we know of a certainty that there is no peace for the wicked (Isa. 48:22). I tremble to think that there may be some who hear me today who are still at home in this world, who are not strangers to it, who are satisfied with its goods and devote themselves to those physical and visible things which pertain to it. I tremble to think that someone may lose his soul and go to eternal darkness; but if someone here does go to that horrible place, he will first have to walk past my outstretched hands and stop his ears to my pleas. With all my heart, as God is my witness, I am determined not to let anyone go away from here unwarned; and I am comforted to know as well that the elders here all feel the same, that they will all continue to offer the painful love of pleading and wrestling for the eternal souls of all who come and listen.
But I also fear to quench the most slightly smoldering wick of true faith with strong words that have not been seasoned with free and almighty grace. If you fear that you are not a stranger to this age, if you fear that you have given in long ago to the lusts which war against your soul, if you are afraid you have lost the battle, then I plead with you, come to Christ and rest! You might struggle and groan for many years more, but the enemy is too great for you, you will never make headway. But Jesus has already overcome, he has already opened the gates to heaven, he turns away no one who leaves everything behind and runs trembling to him. You may say, â€œI have no delight in this world, but I fear I may be too weak to struggle against the sins that I hate, and so enter the next world, where the Savior whom I love is waitingâ€ â€“ if this is you, then comfort your heart with the greatness of the Savior, and rest in his unending grace. You may stumble twice or thrice a day, no, you may stumble seventy times seven, and still he will pick you up and keep you from falling away forever. Will you doubt his goodness and mercy, that have never failed yet? Or do you disregard his commands for fear of your weakness? He commands you to fight, and will you look at the greatness of your lusts, and say, â€œI am but a grasshopper in comparison with them!â€, and cast your sword away? Well, know this, if you turn back and refuse to struggle, God will take no pleasure in you, and you will be cast into outer darkness; but if you struggle and fight, no matter how weak you are, you will finally prevail, and the weaker you become, the stronger the Savior will be for you. All who fight, win. All who persevere, overcome. Don't grow weary, you have not yet resisted unto blood, fighting against sin (Heb. 12:4); and soon this brief, evil day will be over, and reward and victory will be eternal in the presence of the Lamb. The salvation is not in the strength of your arm, but in the greatness of the Savior; and of all who have come to him, he has never lost one yet, nor will he lose you, poor, little, weak lamb. He is a Savior for the weak and trembling, and so you may assure yourself again that it is just such as you whom he will save indeed.